End Notes: Return to Treasure Island

One late afternoon I left a meeting in Manhattan and managed to get to LaGuardia to find that my flight would be delayed three hours. It was more like five hours before we took off, feeling like Lindbergh just clearing those power lines as he lumbered into the gloom. I was to change flights at Detroit but when we got there no further flights were scheduled. Small wonder. It was already early the next day.

Although I had a room reserved I decided to rent a car and drive to South Bend, the better to leave the following morning with my wife for Minneapolis and the baptism of a new grandson, Henry. (My male children have threatened to name a child Earnest Bernard so he could be called Ernie Bernie Mclnerny—but Henry’s name is Hank.)

The windswept tundra between Detroit and South Bend was hazardous. Great trucks seemed assigned to emerge suddenly from the swirling snow to ease me off the road as they roared past. The Four Last Things acquired a peculiar relevance. I got home at five-thirty and. . . .

But enough. That is the evil out of which the Lord brought good. The baptism, of course, the gathering of relatives, the good cheer that bad weather elicits from Minnesotans. But a simpler bonus as well. At LaGuardia, seeking to avoid the endlessly repeated CNN canned airport news, I wandered into a bookshop, shielded my eyes from the glitzy glare of the jumbo bestsellers and found a copy of Treasure Island! Bliss was it in that night to be delayed.

A few months ago, I stopped reading a very psychoanalytic biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, the kind that tells you nothing about someone by trying to tell you “all.” It was one of Graham Greene’s boasts that he was related to Stevenson and of course Chesterton wrote memorably of him. There is a special, a very special genius required to write a story that can be enjoyed from childhood through old age, and Stevenson had that genius. A book is said to achieve the status of literature if we will read it again. What then is one to say of a book that is read again and again and again?

There are lists of the one hundred greatest books, and books are written on what works make up the canon of Western literature, and doubtless there are objective criteria for such selections. But each of us has his private canon as well, the handful of books to which we return again and again, books we cannot imagine being separated from for long. How many of them go back to the earliest days of our reading lives. One enjoys the book along with memories of having enjoyed it often in the past. When we open Conrad we hear again the distinctive voice of Marlow whether or not he is the narrator. Some years ago I found in a second-hand bookstore A Conrad Argosy, the very volume in which as an early teenager I first read that extraordinary Catholic writer. You can’t go home again? There is a book of that title which, like the liar’s paradox, disproves it by having been written.

Reading Treasure Island as the shadows lengthen is like reading Huckleberry Finn—one wonders what one got out of it at eight or nine. And how beautifully violent it is. The decks run with blood and beaches are piled high with bodies before it is over. On the voyage out, the first mate disappears, apparently eased overboard, but most of the deaths happen before the reader’s rounded eyes. As always with Stevenson, there is a keen sense of good and evil, but there is as well a subtlety in his handling of those on either side of the line. The squire is a bit of an ass: he hires on a crew of pirates to go in search of treasure. Doctor Livesy has a grown-up’s opacity from time to time, blaming Jim when we know how heroic the boy has been. But the most complex character of all is Long John Silver, moral chameleon enough to be president, picking up prevailing winds at the ripple of a sail, seemingly redeemed but, in the end, allowed to escape with a small fortune to continue his dissolute life.

I had forgotten the distaste Jim expresses for the island when they weigh anchor for the long voyage home. He never wants to see the place again. Or so he says. But we know better. After all, he returned to it in imagination to write the tale. And we, in good weather and bad, return to the book as to the dreams of our youth, to the wholesome vision of life as the pursuit of worthy treasure with scads of obstacles along the way to it, and depending on how we cope with them we will be what we morally are. Out of the greed and treachery and mayhem and bodies all around rises a world where good and evil fight it out. The real world.

The real world where it snows and flights are delayed or canceled, providing an unscheduled moment of grace when one can curl up one more time with Treasure Island.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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